A few weeks ago, I embarked on a roadtrip across the United States from New York to Phoenix. I traveled to help friends move from one side of the country to the other and offered time behind the wheel to see the scenery of America.
I’m a West Coast resident, so we naturally live under a variety of stereotypes in the Midwest. We’re accused of being elitist, out of touch, and generally ambivalent to the challenges faced by those between the oceans, which recently consists of an opioid addiction, the fear of automation, jobs lost to trade, and immigration.
As I drove along the landscape of America, humming America The Beautiful, I began to think about these issues in details. Driving past the dotted landscape of farm houses, truck stops, endless farms, and small towns, I saw the greatness of America that already existed. I also wondered how we could become more united, particularly in a time of division, as the onslaught of technology and ideology consume the fiber of our every being.
Here are a few of my thoughts:
1. How do we seriously address automation (around truck drivers, fast food workers)?
Our car drove behind two trucks taking up the two lanes on the I-70 as we crossed from Ohio into Indiana. It compelled me to ask on Instagram about the future of this profession and if America is ready for the self-driving truck , currently being developed by the likes of Google and Uber. With truck driving as the most common profession in America and so many truck stops, diners, hotels, and service stations built around the culture, the impact of the self-driving truck will be wide-ranging and hit numerous communities hard.
The onslaught of automation brings about the other question about why we want automation at all. Depending on who you speak to, it comes down to the meaning of humanity, the hatred towards human error (crashes, sleeping at the wheel), and the almighty dollar. Since we’re already a country that champions pulling ourselves up by our boot straps — if there are no bootstraps to pull, then what do we really have left? I’m a believer that just because we can, it doesn’t necessarily mean we should, which puts me at my next question…
2. Does the Midwest really care about what Silicon Valley has to offer?
I was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, home to Silicon Valley. I loved my upbringing and wouldn’t trade the experience of living in one of the most innovative spots in the world for anything else. There’s a pride to knowing that driving down Kifer Road in Santa Clara is exactly where the earliest pieces of technology were built and that you can literally see Google, Apple, LinkedIn, Facebook, and Cisco from the freeway if you squinted hard enough. There’s a sense of ego too that what is built here has literally transformed the world into the Information Age.
But does the post office worker in Joplin, Missouri care that they can potentially get their groceries delivered to them via Postmates?
Does the bookkeeper in small-town Indiana care that their mail can be picked up on their behalf through Task Rabbit?
Would the elementary school instructor in Southern Illinois entertain the idea of renting her (usually unlocked) home out on Airbnb?
The best answer I give here after speaking to locals and looking at the overall landscape is a maybe. Midwesterners live simpler and happier lives because their cost footprint is lower (and we Californians pay more for that weather too) and Silicon Valley also lives in their own bubble. At the end of the day, many folks on both coasts have to admit that much of the conveniences we opt into are resources created by the wealthy to serve the wealthy, and not much more. When it comes to real Midwestern problems, true innovation will solve how citizens find their next paycheck, fight drug abuse, and build closer-knit communities.
Instagram filters and on-demand cat food? Pass.
3. How do we really ‘think local, act global’?
On the first night out, my friends and I ate at a diner in rural Pennsylvania. It was along one of those two-lane roads just a few hundred feet off the freeway, nestled among trees. As I set to order my dinner, I asked the waitress what made living in the state awesome.
“I’ve never left this town”, she told me.
This is a story repeated across America, with many looking at the world from their small towns. Meanwhile, there is also the pervasive message that citizens of America ought to “think local, act global” — even though many have never even wandered beyond county lines.
As America looks more inward with the current presidency, does this message sustain? Do we find ways for Americans in all regions to think about their place in the world, or do we look elsewhere to open our minds?
I’m now back home in California, continuing to reflect on the changes that I viewed in the world. I want to do more cross country roadtrips and have more conversations with people who are interested in sharing their experiences. I know that moving this country forward starts with one thing – listening and having conversations with others, which is also something that we can gain through our careers.
Anything else and progress is moot.